How do you stay mad at someone after walking in their shoes? Developing empathy when you really, really don’t want to.


I was in a routine meetings with a superior, and as usual I started out dreading the time we have to spend together. Today, the meeting was different because this person suddenly opened up like never before. My colleagues and I prefer to avoid said person unless it is absolutely necessary. Let’s just say this person had made one too many people actually cry or leave the company due to poor leadership decisions, and just plain snobby, spiteful power-tripping.

I have always applauded my coworkers for their utmost professionalism when dealing with difficult people, and this person in particular. Knowing this person’s history has made it somewhat easier to empathize with the way we are being treated and the way this person acts at times (I know what you are thinking: “Why has this person not been fired yet?”. What an excellent question! Believe me when I say we have plotted very hard for termination). Again, it takes a strong, conscious person to step back and not accept the criticisms that knocks the wind out of you.

But today was different. Today there were conversations that were full of laughter and wisdom. Conversations filled with happy reminiscing and wistful dissuasion.

For the first time, I was mesmerized by this person. For the first time, I sat up and took note of this person, and so did my colleagues.

What we had assumed all along was confirmed, the dark twisted fate this person had been handed has been debilitating. No wonder this energy was being transferred to everyone that had the misfortune to be around this person. I actually felt deep compassion and sympathy at the end of the meeting. Yikes!

In a ostensibly unrelated incident I had watched “The Cobbler“, a movie starring Adam Sandler, just the night before. I didn’t think think much of it, but gave it a rotten tomato for lack luster fight scenes and called it a night. The story is about a cobbler with the ability to literally walk in someone else’s shoes. When he puts on someone else’s shoes he transforms into whoever the shoes belonged to, complete with their accents and personality traits! How awesome would that be if we can do that for real!

Although I would have liked to see more action in the movie the point they were trying to make was pretty loud and clear. While we may not actually be able to morph into someone else it is possible to imagine what it would be like to live their human experience, to find out what influenced them to be this way at this point in time. So we come back to my original question: How DO you stay mad at someone after walking in their shoes?

Empathy is all about the ability to identify and to understand another person’s feelings, to experience the world from their point of view, to see life from their living conditions. This is generally developed through emotional intelligence, sometimes drawing from one’s own experiences projecting onto the mind of the other person.

The first step is always being aware of your own feelings. We have become so detached from our own emotions and generally find ways to numb them with drugs, work or other distractions. But knowing your own emotional volatility will help understand another person and reminding ourselves that there is no one cookie-cutter solution to dealing with problems. One person may lash out when angry, while another person may internalize it instead.

Don’t rush to judge the other person too quickly. I’m still guilty of often type-casting people based on first impressions. But it’s important to set biases aside and get to know someone better. One of my favourite pastimes if proving other people wrong about assumptions about me. And I like it when other’s do the same. We have no way of knowing what another person goes through everyday. I sometimes like to ask myself, “If I were that person how would I deal with this situation?”. That perspective alone is enough to stop my brain from stereotyping and develop respect for someone.

Look for similarities, not differences. This is a very humbling practice. It’s easy to pretend we are special snow flakes. But we really aren’t. I have had the privilege of living in different parts of the world and surviving harsh living conditions, and no matter where I was everyone sought out love and happiness. It’s easy to develop compassion for someone when you remind yourself that this person too wants the same in life as you.

It’s easy to get caught up in gossip or slander someone we really despise. But leaders need to develop a deeper understanding of the human condition and learn to rise above those instincts. A leader needs to set a better example. It’s not too difficult to learn to walk in someone else’s shoes, to develop empathy for humanity. But it will take practice, patience and punching bags in the process.

I wish you the best of luck!